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The Times leads with Nicola Sturgeon’s exit plan for Scotland. “The First Minister published a 26-page ‘framework’ for easing the lockdown and discussed plans for reopening schools, businesses and allowing small gatherings,” it reports. Sturgeon didn’t say when this might happen, but argued there should be a “better balance” between tackling the disease and protecting the economy. In addition, Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, suggested that lockdown restrictions could be eased at a faster pace there than in the rest of the UK. Guernsey has already put an exit strategy in place, with gardeners, mechanics, estate agents and builders returning to work tomorrow. And in an encouraging sign, various senior Tories praised Sturgeon’s initiative, including Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis and former Chancellor George Osborne who said we need to start talking about “the hard trade-offs”.

According to the Telegraph, Boris will return to work next week (as predicted on this site on Tuesday). Will he make an appearance at the Downing Street press conference on Monday and unveil an exit plan? Sturgeon apparently thinks so. After all, why start talking about her own exit strategy yesterday unless she thinks Boris is about to do likewise? She evidently thinks a big announcement is imminent and wants to make it look as though she bounced the dithering Prime Minster into making a decision. She may be wrong of course, but Boris will have to do something to make it clear he’s back in charge. The holding line – that it’s premature to talk about an exit strategy while deaths are still peaking – won’t survive his return to Downing Street. Once Biggles has recovered from his injuries and is back in the cockpit, people will expect action.

But is the general public ready for a phased exit? One of the things I’ve been puzzling over during this crisis is the willingness of freeborn Englishmen to acquiesce to the greatest suspension of their liberties since the Second World War. And not merely acquiesce – most of them think the Government should go even further. According to an opinion poll published last week, only 6% of people think the current restrictions are “too severe”, while 44% think they’re “not severe enough”. James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation, has tried to unravel this mystery in UnHerd. One of the points he makes is that the 35% of the English electorate who identity as “very strongly English” are also the most authoritarian, according to research done by Paula Sturridge at Bristol University. “The more English you feel, the more likely you are to say that the state and society should tell people what to do, to make them conform and, when they disobey, to punish them harshly,” he writes. You can read his article here.

Thankfully, not everyone has fallen into lockstep with the new orthodoxy. A letter in today’s Telegraph is a reminder of how unimpressed many older people are by the official response to the crisis. Worth quoting in full:

SIR – Russell Lynch (Business, April 22) is right to warn the Government that to prolong lockdown for the over-70s would be “suicidal politics”.

There is widespread “elderly” contempt for the woke-driven pandemic policy: the craven subservience to discredited scientists; insulting war comparisons; deification of the heroic but ill-managed NHS; totalitarian hand-clapping; arrogant directives; officious policing; closing houses of worship; the brute ignorance of Christianity.

If lockdown is not speedily lifted, we 8.8 million “elderly” voters will take our revenge at the general election.

John McEwen
London SW1

There are some encouraging signs that attitudes are beginning to shift more widely. On Monday I noted that my local park in Acton was more crowded than it had been at any time since March 23rd and readers have been reporting similar experiences all week. For instance, one writes: “My eldest son, who lives in Thamesmead, goes out every early evening with his daughter for a walk. He assures me that in the last seven days or so there has been a dramatic increase in cars on the roads, more and more people about – often in groups that are quite clearly made up of children and adults from more than one household, and some evidently visiting other people. Prior to that it was silent with virtually no traffic.”

The Mail picked up on this new mood yesterday, noting that it was the hottest day of the year so far: “Britons all over the UK have ignored lockdown rules today to flock to parks, beaches and promenades as temperatures hit 75F.” The Mail reports that there were long queues outside B&Q stores across the country, as well as the Five Guys hamburger chain, and the AA says journeys were up 10% this week compared to last. If the public are tiring of lockdown it will be hard for the Government to keep it in place, particularly without an exit strategy. And the hot weather looks set to continue:

One sceptical website I’ve neglected to mention until now – and should have flagged up earlier – is COVID-19 In Proportion. It’s full of great graphs such as the one below showing that the the number of deaths in Week 15 of 2020 were lower than they were in some previous flu seasons:

The Media section is also worth looking at, particularly the bit comparing the hysterical alarmism of the BBC News website this week, when the ONS announced that 3,760 had died of COVID-19 in the week ending 10th April, with the home page of the same site on the 13th January 2018 when 3,075 died of respiratory disease. Needless to say, the latter contained nerry a mention of the unusually high death toll. As COVID-19 In Proportion reminds us, the cumulative death toll by the end of Week 15 in 2018 (187, 720) was higher than it was this year (184,960).

And here’s my favourite graph so far. If you take the assumptions that Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College used to predict the death tolls in the UK absent a lockdown (510,000 if we carried on as normal, 250,000 if we continued with mitigation) and use them to model what should have happened in Sweden absent a lockdown, you get the following:

In case you can’t read the small print, the blue area is the daily deaths per 100,000 the Imperial model would have predicted in the “do nothing” scenario, the yellow area is what would have happened if Sweden had stuck with mitigation – which is what it did, obviously – and the red area is the actual number of Swedes who’ve died.

One of the reasons Professor Ferguson estimated such a high death toll in the UK absent a lockdown is because he assumed that <5% of the population had been infected and the overall infection fatality rate (IFR) is ~0.9%. As each day passes, those assumptions look more and more shaky. Yesterday, the results of an antibody study done in New York were published in which 3,000 people were randomly tested at grocery stores and shopping locations across 19 counties in 40 localities. The result? 13.9% tested positive, indicating 2.7 million New Yorkers have already been infected. In New York City the number is 21.2%. (In Stockholm it’s 25%.) And, of course, the higher the number of people infected, the lower the IFR, which is the number of infected divided by the number who’ve died. Mario Cuomo, the Governor of New York, puts the IFR at 0.5%, but in all likelihood it will turn out to be lower.

We’ve heard about the five tests our Government has set before lockdown can be lifted. Arch-sceptic Heather Mac Donald has devised five tests US state governors should set themselves before extending lockdowns. They are:

  • How many coronavirus deaths do you expect to avert by the shut-down extension?
  • What will your state’s economy look like after another month of enforced stasis?
  • How many workers will have lost their jobs?
  • How many businesses will have closed for good?
  • How many of your state’s young residents, seeking employment for the first time, will be unable to find it?

When I made my original sceptical argument in the Critic last month, I pointed out that an extended lockdown would likely result in a greater loss of life than lifting it. But I was just talking about the UK. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the people who’ll pay the heaviest price for decision of Western governments to sacrifice their economies to keep the virus at bay will be those in the developing world. In this week’s Spectator, Aidan Hartley spells it out:

Starkest of all will be Africa’s economic collapse, wiping out jobs for many of the continent’s 1.2 billion people. Tourism, vital to the conservation of wildlife, forests and monuments, has fallen apart. Mining, oil and gas are close behind. Exports of tea, coffee and cocoa are also being hit hard. Until recently Africa served as a giant nursery, raising migrants to supply cheap labour for rich countries. Every month these workers send money home to their families, and remittances are now the largest source of foreign exchange in many countries. As diaspora Africans fall out of work, these funds are evaporating. In the high-density slums, each breadwinner might feed ten mouths. Nairobi city governor Mike Sonko promised mass distributions of Hennessy cognac because ‘alcohol plays a major role in killing the coronavirus’ — but such clowning aside, slum-dwellers have no cash reserves, nor a welfare state to rescue them. As global supply chains collapse, it becomes horribly clear that out of 54 African states, only Zambia is a net food exporter. Many Africans routinely rely on food aid. For oil-dependent Nigeria’s nearly 200 million people, life is about to get tough.

Another piece worth reading in this week’s Spectator – the 10,000th issue, no less – is Matt Ridley’s. Forget about finding a vaccine, he says, and focus on the treatments: “Within a month or two, one of the 30 or more therapies currently being tested is likely to prove effective and safe.” And there’s my column of course, although it’s not about the virus this week. (I also appeared the Last Orders podcast yesterday with Christopher Snowdon and Tom Slater.)

A bizarre article appeared in the Huffington Post yesterday arguing that it would be a shame if Oxford University wins the race to develop a vaccine because that could be used by knuckle-dragging nationalists as way to belittle the universities of other countries. Written by Emily Cousins, who teaches women’s studies at Oxford, it argues that any triumph for the ancient university “will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence”. But as Andrew Neil pointed out on Twitter, if Oxford does develop a vaccine, won’t that in fact be proof of British excellence? After all, Oxford is consistently ranked in the top five universities in the world, often it he top two. You can read her bonkers argument here.

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